April 13, 2004 -- Moving from elementary to middle school may be a turning point in children's diet as well as their education. A new study shows children get fewer fruits and vegetables and more sweetened drinks and french fries as they move up in school.
Researchers say access to snack bars and stores in middle school that offer plenty of high-fat, high-calorie foods and fewer nutritious items may be to blame for busting kids' diets.
The study showed that after fourth graders moved up to fifth grade, they ate about a third fewer servings of fruit, non-fried vegetables, and milk than they did in elementary schools. At the same time, the number of servings of high-fat vegetables, such as french fries, and sweetened drinks increased by two-thirds.
Meals at School Worsen With Age
In the study, researchers followed two groups of Texas schoolchildren over two years and asked them to report what they ate for lunch and where the food came from.
The first group of fourth graders received lunches from the National School Lunch Program, which offers two servings of fruits and vegetables and eight ounces of milk per day. As they moved into middle school and had a greater number of lunch options, researchers found that the number of servings of fruits, regular (non-fried) vegetables, and milk decreased by 33%, 42%, and 35%, respectively.
Meanwhile, the number of servings of high-fat (fried) vegetables and sweetened beverages increased by 68% and 62%.
A similar but less dramatic pattern was found among the second group of fifth graders who were followed as they moved into sixth grade. These students increased their consumption of high-fat vegetables by 30% and ate 10% fewer regular vegetables.
Surprisingly, researchers say they found the sixth graders drank slightly more milk and slightly less sweetened drinks than they did in fifth grade. But they say this might be explained by the fact that the school's snack bar began offering bottled water during the second year of the study.
Researchers say the snack bar may play an important role in determining the nutritional quality of the children's lunches.
"Approximately 35% to 40% of students reported eating snack bar meals exclusively over the 2 years," write researcher Karen Weber Cullen, DrPH, RD, of the Baylor College of Medicine, and colleagues in the March issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
"Those students consumed fewer fruits, regular vegetables and milk and consumed greater amounts of sweetened beverages and high-fat vegetables than what they reported in previous years, when they only received lunch program meals," they write.